Getting serious about water policy

We picked a bottle out of the bay a couple of weeks ago thinking we were just being good citizens, brought it home, and only just discovered it had a post rolled up in it from our water correspondent, Froude Reynolds:

Three former governors supporting Gov. Schwarzenegger’s call for a new water strategy for California in an LA Times Op-Ed. They describe the crisis first: more people live here as the climate gets drier; important infrastructure in the Delta is likely to collapse catastrophically. Yep. That’s a crisis. But the proposed solutions are not much of a strategy and represent no new thinking. The four prongs of this “new water strategy” are 1. build new plumbing around the Delta, 2. everyone conserves water by twenty percent, 3. get agencies in regions together to… do something regional, and 4. put some money behind new infrastructure. Those are decent short-term responses to more people, less water and breaking infrastructure, but they are not a strategy. They are reactive techniques applied well after the problems present themselves.

A strategy would be for us to decide what we want water to do for us. Water could do all sorts of things. Water can directly sustain our bodies. Water can grow plants to feed us and the nation or plants to look green outside our houses. Water can turn turbines. Water can provide salmon and trout places to live. Water can keep seawater out of our aquifers or keep the ground from subsiding. Water can dilute plumes of toxic chemicals. Water can carry s–t away from our houses. Water can brush dirt off your driveway. Water can wash silicon wafers. Water can look attractive in fountains. Water can be turned back to snow to ski on. Water in California can do whatever we decide to pay for. But that’s the thing. A real water strategy would mean that we make decisions, not that we cobble together techniques that will let us perpetuate for a few more years the very peculiar set of things that water happens to do for us now.

Leadership, Messrs. Three Former Governors and One Current Governor, would be considerably more than listing current problems and naming disjointed techniques to solve them Whack-A-Mole-style. Leadership would be setting up a process to choose what we want water to do (one that doesn’t have “more of the same” as the default answer) and then devising a route to get there. It may be that we want water to flow to its highest economic use, which would mean eliminating the institutional barriers to a water market. It may be that we want the cleanest water available for humans to drink and that we want water to give us food security, which would mean designating waters for those uses. Maybe we want water to host wildlife, which would not be a use well-served by a water market but instead require regulation. Maybe we want a mixture. Leadership would create a vision and a strategy would get you there. There was neither in that L.A. Times editorial, no matter what they title the op-ed or call their group.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.